The word Yup’ik in the language of the same name means “genuine person.” The Central Yup’ik population is found from as far north as St. Michaels in the Norton Sound area to as far south as Egegik in Alaska Peninsula, including the Nunivak and Nelson Islands. Most of this area consists of moist tundra and vegetation that has evolved to withstand extreme temperatures and a short growing season. Traditionally, the Yup’ik were considered to be nomadic people, moving with the seasons and food sources.
Preparations for winter were extensive in traditional times. Grass was gathered for baskets and mats while ptarmigan, rabbits and fish were cached. All parts of subsistence animals were used, from the bones to whiskers and feathers. Potlatches were held in the “qasgiq,” a community sod house used for dancing and shelter for the men. A village hosting a potlatch generally invited a neighboring village to participate, at which point gifting competitions would ensue.
Dancing is a communal activity in Yup’ik tradition. Dances tell stories of past hunting and fishing trips, qasgiq songs, hanging and cutting fish, dreams that a person envisioned or many other everyday activities and occurrences. Yup’ik dancing, itself, is characterized by the use of dance fans. Yup’ik women use dance fans made of woven grass and caribou whiskers or feathers, while Yup’ik men use a ring-style dance fan made of wood and feathers. The men typically kneel in front of the women, and all movements are exactly synchronized. Yup’ik songs generally have several choruses, and it is difficult to tell when a Yup’ik dance is finished! Once a dance is finished, it is the Yup’ik tradition to shout “Pamyua,” which means “Encore!” or “Again!”